Analysis & Reviews

Alleviating Water Scarcity in Cuba

Alleviating Water Scarcity in Cuba

Due to the deleterious effects of climate change (such as uneven distribution of precipitation & higher evaporation rates), water scarcity is becoming an ever-increasing problem in the near future in both high- & low-income countries. The problem exacerbates when considering the increasing population growth & rapid urbanization. The availability of water in the required & appropriate quantity and quality is of vital importance for development, to reduce poverty, to secure the well-being & health of the inhabitants and towards achieving food security.

Cuba’s challenges in the face of increasing water security

Cuba is particularly vulnerable to climate change effects, water scarcity is one of the most important factors

Because of its geographical location, topography and insular character, Cuba is particularly vulnerable to climate change effects, where water scarcity is one of the most important factors affecting and limiting the access of the population to safe and continuous water supply, jeopardizing not only basic human needs (like  appropriate sanitation) and economic activities (tourism) but also the food production sector(such as the agroindustry and agriculture considered among the most water consuming productive activities).

water availability per capita in Cuba reaches 1220 m3/year

In the last years, lower precipitation levels have led to a lower availability and storage of fresh water in surface water bodies of around 3.0 billion m3 which corresponds to about 43.1% of the total capacity2 estimated by the local government in 6.5 billion m3 per year. Thus, water availability per capita in Cuba reaches 1220 m3/year which is lower than the minimum desirable of 1500 m3/hab.year established by UN for the satisfaction of the water needs of the population, underlining the importance of adopting and implementing efficient water management practices and a stricter water consumption.

Although 93% of the population has access to drinking water ; 55% of the water supplied is lost to leaks

As a consequence of water scarcity and despite that 93% of the population is served by drinking water sources (98% in urban areas and 82% in rural regions), the time and access to the service is variable and therefore up to 79% of the population has intermittent access to water supply (in an average of 12 hours per day)3, which may not meet the corresponding standards for direct human consumption and use.

Special attention deserves the obsolete water supply network (80% of the mains and distribution pipes are older than 40 years). Thus, despite that the average water supply per inhabitant in Cuba is estimated in about 604 litres per dayabout 55% of the water supplied is lost to leaks within the distribution system5.

In the tourism sector, water consumption per tourist can be up to 1,000 litres/day

In the tourism sector, an important economic activity in the last decade, a water consumption of up to 1,000 litres/day per tourist is applied in practice. Furthermore, the limited water precipitation and reduced water storage capacity (as consequence of the topographical features of the island) makes the water resources of Cuba susceptible to saltwater intrusion, an increasing problem due to the overexploitation of groundwater sources.

On the other hand, wastewater treatment is rather limited in Cuba, while wastewater collection reaches 98% coverage, only 19% of generated wastewater receives certain treatment before its discharged into surface water bodies6 which severely affects primary fresh water resources (e.g. potential hydraulic interaction between Almendares River & Vento Aquifer which serves as a potential hydraulic connection to the drinking supply of the City of Havana).

Overall, water scarcity problems in Cuba are severely affected by (i) lack of alternative water sources in adequate quality and quantity to match the increasing demand for human and productive activities, (ii) obsolete and inefficient water supply network, and (iii) lack of appropriate wastewater treatment which limits any possible reuse.

UNESCO-IHE programme: “Mas Agua Para Todos” (More Water for All)

In this regard, UNESCO-IHE recently started the project MÁS AGUA PARA TODOS: Adapting to Climate Change and Mitigating Water Scarcity by Innovative Urban Water Management in Cuba’. This project, whose short name accounts for “MORE WATER FOR ALL”, and led by Dr. Carlos Lopez Vazquez from UNESCO-IHE, has research and capacity development components, which will both contribute to the alleviation of water scarcity issues in Cuba. The project is funded by the European Union (project No. DCI-ENV/2010/247-301) and has a duration of three years.

“MAS AGUA PARA TODOS” is led by UNESCO-IHE, the Instituto Superior Politécnico “José A Echeverria” (CUJAE) and an international consortium of which the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) is one of the international technical partners. The Cuban partners are the Cuban National Institute for Water Resources (INRH) and the Cuban Food Industry Research Institute (IIIA). Delft University of Technology (TUDelft) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) complement the project consortium.


Water scarcity alleviation strategies

One of the project objectives is to contribute to alleviate the water scarcity issue in Cuba through the introduction of innovative practices, including decreasing the demand for freshwater, encouraging wastewater reuse, and use of seawater as secondary quality water in the urban environment.

… decreasing the demand for freshwater, encouraging wastewater reuse, and use of seawater as secondary quality water for urban use are methods used to alleviate water scarcity in Cuba

The project is looking at introducing seawater toilet flushing practices, like the one developed by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).

Another practice the project is looking at is the Sulphate Reduction, Autotrophic Denitrification and Nitrification Integrated (SANI) process for sewage treatment developed by Prof Guanghao Chen of HKUST. “Leveraging Hong Kong’s unique seawater flushing system, we have developed a novel, energy-efficient and low carbon sewage treatment technology. The SANI process can eliminate 90% of sewage sludge production, and reduce sewage treatment costs by 50%, space requirements by over 50%, and cut down greenhouse gas emissions by 35%”, says Chen.

Another area is wastewater treatment & reuse. The SANI process is also being considered for applications in wastewater treatment. Other wastewater practices include onsite wastewater reuse for irrigation.

Schematic representation of the saline wastewater treatment system and pilot-plant in Hong Kong

Pilot systems to be tested in Varadero – popular tourist destination

The first sector to be targeted will be Cuba’s tourism sector. In this regard, the project will carry out most the demonstration activities in Varadero, a well-known touristic destination worldwide.

“Water is mankind’s most precious resource, but an increasing human population and unpredictable climate means there may not be enough to go around.”

Prof. Orestes Gonzales of CUJAE, Project Co-director

Veradero in Cuba Map

In his visit to the Shatin Sewage Treatment Works of the Drainage Services Department in Hong Kong, Prof. Orestes Gonzales of CUJAE, co-director from the project and leader of the Cuba delegation, shared: “Cuba must learn the valuable research and practical experience in seawater-based technologies developed in Hong Kong. Water is mankind’s most precious resource, but an increasing human population and unpredictable climate means there may not be enough to go around.”
2 Source: Redacción Radio 26, July 12th 2010.
3 Solo-Gabrielle and Perez (2008) Cuba’s water and wastewater sector: environmental literature, institutional and economic issues and future work. Cuba in Transition 18:378-389.
4 Alonso Hernandez and Mon (1996) Characterización del abastecimiento de agua potable y saneamiento de la Ciudad de la Habana. Document No. 50443-1011-A81/036473, AIDIS and CEPIS.
5 Scapaci et al. (2002) Two faces of the Antillean metropolis. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapell Hill, NC.
6 WHO (2006) Meeting the MDG drinking water and sanitation target, the urban and rural challenge of the decade. Geneva, Switzerland (

Further Reading

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  • Water Risk & National Security - With the China’s largest surface freshwater reserves, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau glaciers shrinking by 15% (an area equivalent to 11.5 “Singapores’), we review US military views on how climate change impacts national security & China’s current stance
  • Can Cities Meet Increasing Water Demands - Nitin Dani and Georgina Glanfield from Green Initiatives Shanghai share their thoughts on how Chinese cities can ensure water security. Can the public play a role?
  • Hotels: Moving Beyond Water Risks - International Tourism Partnership’s Fran Hughes on why the hotel industry should move beyond water per guest night and address operational and reputational risks
  • Bridging Gaps to Water Innovation - Water scarcity & pollution will drive innovation in partnerships and technology but the road to commercialisation remains long. Will Sarni, Partner at Deloittes discusses the barriers to innovation in the water sector
  • Double Savings from the Ground Up - With caps on both water and energy usage, saving water and electricity takes centre stage. Asia Clean Capital’s Brione Bruce explains how ground energy can help achieve double savings
  • Water Sense –Water Saving Technologies for Buildings - Property managers focus on saving energy over saving water. GreenLink Global’s Mona Ip explains why saving water in buildings will not only save costs but protect asset values
Carlos Lopez Vazquez

About Carlos Lopez Vazquez

Carlos Manuel Lopez Vazquez is Senior Lecturer in Wastewater Treatment Technology at UNESCO-IHE institute for Water Education. In 2009, he received his doctoral degree on Environmental Biotechnology (cum laude) from Delft University of Technology and UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education on the topic "The Competition between Polyphosphate-Accumulating Organisms and Glycogen-Accumulating Organisms: Temperature Effects and Modelling". During his professional career, he has taken part in different advisory and consultancy projects for both public and private sectors concerning municipal and industrial wastewater treatment systems. After working for a couple of years in the Water R&D Department of Nalco Europe on industrial (waste)water treatment applications, he re-joined UNESCO-IHE’s Sanitary Engineering Core in 2009. Since then, he is involved in education, capacity building and research projects guiding several MSc and PhD students and co-authoring several peer-reviewed publications. By applying mathematical modelling as an essential tool, he has a special focus on the development and transfer of innovative and cost-effective wastewater treatment technologies to developing countries, countries in transition and industrial applications.

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